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Tourism a vital part of economy

Clarksdale — more than just cotton and soybeans

CLARKSDALE — In 1848 John Clark set up residence in what would become the city named in his honor — Clarksdale. Like all other Mississippi Delta communities, the original attraction was agriculture and the richest soil in the world, as well as the Mississippi River serving as a great highway to get product to market.

While agriculture is still the kingpin of the economy, Clarksdale, which incorporated in 1882, now offers much more than just cotton and soybean fields. The music of those hands that once worked the fields offer a cultural tourism bonanza for the city. Transportation remains a huge asset for the area, but now those products shipped include everything from electricity to manufactured goods.

If the Delta is the “Birthplace of the Blues,” then Clarksdale is the cradle. It’s near the city that the U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 intersect, creating the famous (or infamous) “Crossroads” of enduring blues legend. Such icons as W.C. Handy, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner all called Clarksdale home at one time or another.

In addition to pilgrimages to the former homes of Waters and Handy and a number of blues-related, and non-blues-related, festivals (the Delta Jubilee festival will be held June 1 and is expected to draw 30,000 attendees), Clarksdale houses the Delta Blues Museum. Located in the former Yazoo & Mississippi River Valley Railroad Depot, the 11,800-square-foot facility draws visitors from around the world.

“We have never done a survey of the numbers of visitors and economic impact of cultural tourism in Clarksdale, but the state has done a study, and tourism remains a vital part of our local economy,” said Ron Hudson, executive director of the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce.

That impact from tourism has meant growth in other segment’s of the city’s economy, too.

“I’m really excited about the retail growth in Clarksdale,” said Mayor Richard M. Webster Jr. “Not only have we seen new shopping plazas, but downtown has seen a top-flight restaurant (Madidi’s) and a new blues club (Ground Zero).”

Clarksdale is the third-largest city in the Delta with approximately 20,000 residents. Due to locale (65 miles south of Memphis), inexpensive land and other inducements, Clarksdale has a hearty industrial base, including such notables as Delta Wire Corp., Arthur Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cooper Tire and Rubber Co.

The city boasts two industrial parks — Clarksdale Industrial Park, which according to Hudson is practically full, and Sunbelt Industrial Park.

One unique aspect of the city’s offerings to current and prospective businesses is Coahoma Community College’s Skill Tech Center, which is located in the Sunbelt Industrial Park.

“It is quite unique to have our Skill Tech Center actually located in the industrial park,” Hudson said. “Prospects find that attractive.”

The proposed route of new Interstate 69 will swing by Clarksdale and offer a shot in the arm to both business people and tourists. Clarksdale had already begun a bypass, which is going to be incorporated into I-69, before the roadway’s route was even determined, and that work led to the highway’s route passing near the city.

“Our homework and past efforts to improve our transportation infrastructure really paid off when the possible routes of I-69 were being discussed,” Hudson said. “The bypass was already being built to interstate standards when talks were underway.”

I-69 will also include a new bridge near Cleveland and south of Clarksdale. Already enjoying the luxury of great western access via the existing bridge at Helena, Ark., the new bridge will add to the city’s infrastructure and transportation assets.

Yet another benefit to Clarksdale could be realized if Pete Johnson is named to co-chair the Delta Regional Authority (DRA). The DRA was signed by President Bill Clinton last December and is charged, among other things, with providing a vehicle through which federal funds will be funneled to local communities for economic development. Johnson, a Clarksdale attorney and president of the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, has been nominated to co-chair the DRA, which covers eight states and more than 225 counties and parishes, by President George W. Bush.

“Having Pete as chair of the Delta Regional Authority would obviously be a huge plus for Clarksdale,” Hudson said.

Perhaps the biggest news around town, however, is the construction of a new, peaking electric-generation plant. Aquila Energy of Kansas City is building the more than $130-million, 320-megawatt plant, which is expected to be in operation in June 2002.

Up to 200 workers will be employed during plant construction. Once complete, employment at the plant is expected to be low. However, the long-term benefits to Clarksdale are expected to be significant.

“One of the great things about the new power plant is the stability it is going to offer to our electrical system and increased reliability,” said Lynn Helton, assistant general manager of Clarksdale Public Utilities. “It’s going to add 320 megawatts of available electricity to our system, which is huge, and should help us make sure we don’t see the problems of lack of electricity currently being experienced by other parts of the nation.”

Mayor Webster said, “It puts us in a great competitive situation. The line will tie back into Lula, beef up our infrastructure and offer enormous potential for long-term, sustainable economic development efforts.”

A second power plant going up may be announced soon. Hudson said the city was currently in negotiations with another unnamed concern to build a generation plant.

While the project is still in the talking phase, Hudson said he felt good about the project, and an announcement could be made “shortly.”

“I think it’s a lot of things,” said Hudson of Clarksdale’s growth. “We have great infrastructure, great locale. We have tourism and manufacturing. People are excited about where we are headed. It all adds up to a number of pluses for us.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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